I’m getting tired of ‘corporatization’ claims regarding the development industry

Did you read the news recently? It is full of the same old stories: How MSF struck at huge tax evasion deal with British authorities, how PLAN is essentially a foundation based in Liechtenstein, how Save The Children is stashing away hundreds of millions of dollars of their donations in Caribbean bank accounts and how the WFP is basically a one-person entity with headquarters in Guernsey. And then there were those stories of how Action Aid started to sell submarines to dodgy governments and how the ICRC bought up all the local charities, sacked everybody and made them re-apply for their old jobs on minimum wages and without benefits.

Obviously none of these are true stories. They cannot be true, because no humanitarian or development charity, foundation or NGO works like a corporate entity (although the recent story that the American Red Cross responded with corporate lawyers to information requests about their post-Sandy spending is not exactly encouraging...). But it is easy and to some extent lazy to present a blanket statement like ‘corporatization’ and blame the development industry for all sorts of shortcomings.

Therefore, I think that Ian Birrell’s polemic ‘Aid agencies have become self-serving corporations dressed in the clothing of compassion’ misses many points. His editorial is loosely based on a much-discussed and –shared new MSF report, asking
Where Is Everyone?.
MSF’s report continues a long-standing and well-established critique of the shortcoming of humanitarian aid, as Bertrand Taithe points out in his very good post.

Based on discussions in my network, I want to focus on the ‘cash-swollen corporation’ argument even if the MSF report does not contain the c-word.

There is a development industry, of course

Let me be very clear form the beginning: I absolutely think that development work and research are implemented by an industry as I have pointed out on several different occasions on this bog: Who is 'the development industry'?; You (They) wanted an aid industry – you (they) got posh white blokes; ‘The field’ is where inequality persists–a reply to ‘Send them to the field!’.
The actors of this industry have undergone significant processes of professionalization and may have embraced one too many ideas from the private sector in these processes. But this is not the same as ‘corporatization’.

‘Development’ is firmly embedded in contemporary consumer and disaster capitalism – but how significant is its negative impact really?
From voluntourism in Nepal to outrageous rents in Myanmar, detrimental effects of UN peacekeeping in Haiti or the generally crazy expat-lifestyle in post-conflict capitals – modern development does have negative (side) effects and an impact beyond its initial charitable mission.
The white Land Cruisers, frequent R&R and post-/neo-colonial savior complexes make great reflective essays and dinner conversations. And for every clever online advocacy campaign there is a pre-Christmas TV advertisement of well-known organizations that still features African children with snot on their face.
We on the professional frontlines strive to make development better every day while large parts of middle class people around the globe have visions around ‘help’, ‘aid’ and exoticism that make modernization theory look like a participatory bottom-up empowerment exercise. And within all these complexities, visions and stereotypes we should not lose sight of the bigger question: How bad is the development industry really? How much damage is it actually doing and how important outside of anthropological naval gazing is the question whether Kabul hosts more Yoga events than Kathmandu does Tango classes? How sheltered, distant to local realities and globalized is your life really because you enjoy your Capoeira class and usually update your facebook from a Gulf airport?
As Bertrand Taithe points out that the development and humanitarian industry’s size pales in comparison to many other industries-and it is one of the most monitored, evaluated, discussed and self-reflective/-reflexive industries I know of.

Don’t equate ‘professionalization’ with ‘corporatization’
One of the reasons why ‘corporatization’ claims may be easy to make is because the nature of development or humanitarian work and organizations has been changing – in many cases for the better. Just because there is now a professional HR department (for example my WhyDev guest post The state of HR in development work 2013), or organizations pay more attention to notions of well-being, career development or pay scales does not automatically mean they went ‘corporate’. As romantic or suitable for stories notions of self-medicating aid workers who deny earthly possessions and selflessly rescue the one photogenic refugee are, I am less keen to send students, friends or colleagues into situations where they quickly burn out or endanger their lives (which still happens more than enough even a bit away from the limelight and humanitarian frontlines). ‘The rise of militarized NGOs’ is part of the new reality that requires careful considerations-especially in conflict situations and difficult to reach areas.

It is 2014 and we know that wars will not end through logical reasoning, natural disasters are part of our global reality and organizations cannot rest on their unlimited core funding for the next 6 years. The development industry is full of trade-offs, complexities and difficult choices, but simply pocketing money and rubbing shoulders with the rich, famous and powerful is pretty low on most agendas.

What kind of politicization do you really want?
Oxfam was criticized recently over their involvement in campaigning for ‘development’ issues in the UK.
So where and how should these organizations get involved, become more critical, tell the truth and go to places where it hurts? Well, ideally there should be some kind of ‘partnership’ that involves a ‘win’ for the taxpayer, a ‘win’ for the organizations and a ‘win’ for the truly corporate entities that chip in a few Euros from their CSR budget. No boat-rocking please while we sail gently through the smooth waves of ‘eradicating poverty’ one capitalist idea at the time!

The development industry is carefully observing other ‘industries’-from the decline of a genuinely ‘public’ sector to the corporatization of many efforts, from waging war, to running services or, as the World Cup is reaching its climax, to sports and entertainment. There are no simple answers. Withdrawing is not really an option, but embracing consumerist and lifestyle notions of development will not be helping to maintain the industry in the long-run either.

Right now, the ‘third sector’ may have moved closer to the ‘first’, private sector, but it is far from being a ‘corporate shell’. Those who work in the development industry work hard, often earn OK-ish salaries at best and try to adopt an alternative, reflective, critical, non-cynical worldview in their daily work. Just because some of this work takes place in front of a Toshiba notebook or in windowless coordination meeting rooms with 1980s furniture does not make it ‘corporate’.
As I always say, I’d rather have a tax-funded organization ‘lose’ a motorbike or laptop in a remote village and write a report about it than another billion dollar defense project that is shrouded in secrecy until the full amount of failure is disclosed and politicians pledge more money to ‘fix’ the project.

But back to the original report: As always, MSF provides valuable food for thought, discussion and action-and the bureaucratic crisis of the UN remains one of the key issue of this report-but as sustained aspirations are necessary, we should not unduly criticize the aid industry or lose sight of the bigger dynamics that enable many crises in the first place.


  1. This is a great post, Tobias! And in addition to your entertaining language it raises the important questions as to how development actors from all areas can and should navigate the difficult sea between cynicism (too easy), naive idealism (sometimes needed), and honest attempts to think how economic needs, neoliberal paradigms, structuralist constraints, post-colonial remembrances, processes of involving actors and enhancing the capabilities of some (which ones though?!). How do we assess how our actions affect the power relations between groups, countries, experts and ‘target groups,’ not only with regard to the impact on the immediate activities but the larger understanding of group relations. How to address normative questions and be pragmatic at the same time, how to find meaning in the many emerging concepts that sometimes appear as ‘plastic words’ (as one of your previous posts noted) but that (potentially) carry important meaning, if considered properly.
    Many more discussions will be needed for all of us to understand and rethink our relationship to questions of development in the larger sense, to our own position in the industry, to the implicit memes of governmentality we may not be challenging (but should be). I’m always glad for occasions to think again, and thus, thank you for the post.

  2. so the aid industry is not quite as bad as the arms industry! big deal! -- I mean perhaps it should be expected that an industry explicitly concerned with equitable sustainable development, poverty reduction and disaster response should be just about the best thing going! - sadly not the case -- I have just too many bad stories to tell from 25 years experiencing the creeping corporatisation of aid -- perhaps one story - last year while working on an ebola mitigation project we were unexpectedly given $400,000 of technology by a private donor (no doubt a tax write off but whatever!) and hence made a big saving on our project budget -- low and behold the organisation discovered they had underestimated their overhead by $360,000 -- convenient eh! (incidentally equivalent to 1 years salary for the big boss -- I did, half jokingly, suggest that the OH gap was filled by him agreeing to sacrifice a years salary-- not surprisingly they didn't get the joke!)


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